‘These women are not victims’ – Paula Rego’s extraordinary Abortion series

ion 1998, the year of a Portuguese referendum debate on abortion, Paula Rego poured her fierce, formidable passion into 10 large paintings set in backstreet abortion clinics. These were a direct gesture of protest at the cruelty of anti-abortion laws. Focused on individual women positioned on single beds in improvised operating theatres, the paintings of the Abortion series are so dark and claustrophobic that you can almost feel the heat and stickiness, and smell the adrenal sweat.

Rego pulls the focus of the abortion debate back to the woman’s experience. There is no blood, no gore, no biological nastiness to see here: this is all about feeling, both physical and psychological. First-hand discussion of abortion remains taboo even 24 years later – Rego’s works carry us into the heart of this unseen, unspoken terrain.

Working with Lila Nunes, her close collaborator and model since 1985, Rego constructed characters for each picture. In one, a sophisticated woman in a red patterned dress leans back on a plastic sheet on the single bed, her parted legs slung awkwardly over the back of folding chairs standing in for obstetric stirrups as she waits for the surgeon. In another, a girl in a British school uniform (purchased by Rego from John Lewis) lies curled in a tight ball on a tatty leather sofa, gripping her white knuckles around a folded blanket.

There are stoic women squatting over plastic buckets or old-fashioned chamber pots, enduring another of life’s undignified necessities. Others lie back on the bed, legs splayed and skirts hitched up, as though waiting for a lover to return.

Wearing a red bandana, a muscular woman sits with her back to the wall, pulling her legs up, ready, and holding our gaze. Rego’s women are not victims. She did not construct this series around pain, shame and grief, although all are here. Instead she presents experiences of abortion as nuanced as the characters themselves. There is space here for ambiguity and the weird contradictions of being human and imperfect – speaking of the works, Rego said that physical pain and the erotic are tied inseparably together. She is painting abortion back into daily life.

The women in these paintings endure the physical pain, indignity and risk of an illegal abortion because it represents freedom, as it had for Rego herself, pregnant as a student at the Slade school of art in the 1950s. Without an abortion she would have been sent back to her mother in Portugal, and we would have been robbed of this extraordinary artist’s work.

Il Abortion paintings were first shown at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, and Rego made etchings so that these powerful images could be widely distributed. They were published in a number of Portuguese newspapers in the run-up to a second referendum on abortion in 2007. Many believe they were pivotal in the vote’s success.

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